Agroecology. Full Stop!

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans sustainable lived off the land. With the transition to fossil fuel, and later the repurposing of toxic chemicals developed during the ‘great wars’ for use on the farm, humanity departed from its natural, give-and-take relationship with nature. We, the developed ‘Western’ nations of the world, now use food aid as an economic weapon against the undeveloped world to insure a source of cheap food and labor. (See “Stuffed and Starved,” –Patel).

Mycelium colonizing biochar at the PCE.Farm

The most efficient farms are small, run by a handful of people, scattered across the landscape but relatively close to urban centers utilizing primarily human power to plant/harvest/cultivate their crops. Well managed, they use far fewer resources to produce healthier food in greater quantities per square foot than the chemical and fossil fuel dependent “Conventional” mega farms that lie far from population centers.

A return to agroecology, agriculture with an ecological basis, on small farms near the towns and cities that demand the produce, can promote food sovereignty, reduce harmful climate impacting emissions, and even sequester vast amounts of carbon back into the soil (How is carbon stored in the soil Video from soilfoodweb.com). Why wouldn’t we move in this direction?

Raj Patel make this argument well in his latest article in Scientific American titled “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger.” And I might add, an essential tool in our humanities collective work to mitigate the climate crisis–one that anyone with a yard can practice.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/agroecology-is-the-solution-to-world-hunger/

Multiple Pesticides, Synergistic Impact

A new meta-analysis shows that combinations of pesticides have a significantly higher mortality on bees than when used individually, resulting in an underestimated impact to bees by pesticide makers and regulators.

A swarm from the PCEFarm apiary in May 2021

Take home quote:
“In 2019 scientists concluded that nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in decline and a third could disappear altogether by century’s end. One in six species of bees have gone regionally extinct somewhere in the world. The main drivers of pollinator extinction are thought to be habitat loss and pesticide use.”

Summary article:
https://www.sciencealert.com/huge-metastudy-says-pesticide-threat-to-bees-likely-underestimated

Link to original article in Nature:
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03787-7

Pesticide impact study on soil biology–no surprises…

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity (@CenterForBioDiv) this nice bit of reporting ran across my desktofrom the Guardian’s Environmental Editor, Damien Carrington (@dpcarrington article linked below). He presents a great summary of a recent scientific review of pesticide/fungicide/herbicide impacts on soil invertebrates. Sadly there were no surprises, with the vast majority of impact categories studied showing harm.

A healthy soil biome is the pre-requisite to growing healthy food, sequestering carbon, minimizing erosion, increasing rainfall infiltration, nutrient retention and cycling–in short without healthy soil, you can forget about farming long term.

The most surprising thing I learned from this article was that, in the US, the only insect tested for negative impacts by ‘*any*-cides’ was the honey bee. Which means there’s no standards for testing or protection of your soil life.

Is this what you see when you turn over a stump near your garden? It should be.

Checkout the article here, and spread a little compost around today!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/04/vital-soil-organisms-being-harmed-by-pesticides-study-shows

Out of 20,000 species of bees, is Apis Melifera the one to ‘save’?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the European honey bee, I receive tremendous joy from their tolerance of my time poking around in their hives, watching them on flowers, and swarming across the countryside (or my back yard). Yet I still have to remind myself, this introduced, invasive species was brought to North America for the benefit of humans, not the natural environment, and it’s proliferation on this continent isn’t great for the tens of thousands of other bee species also competing for resources here.

Treatment free honeybees enjoying a sip of water on a warm sprint day in our back yard. Photo by Trina 2021.

Honey Bees however are extremely valuable beyond their direct economic impact for us humans. Some beekeepers like to say every third bite of food we eat is on our plate because of the honey bee. Somehow though, before the 1600’s when Apis Melifera first arrived on the scene in the ‘new world’, the native population with their massive cities, (significantly larger than most European cities of the time) complex societies, and elaborate art/religion/rituals were able to eat just fine, and with a mostly plant based diet. So what was pollinating those crops? The native insect population of course! This is where the European honey bee, with its easily recognized economic value in honey and pollination services, (something we value, carefully track, and have therefore put a lot of time into studying) can be leveraged for a greater purpose–education about all insects.

When we first started “keeping bees” back in 2014, I quite literally knew nothing about insects and was, like many new farmers or budding gardeners focused on killing the ‘bad bugs’. As it happens the honey bee turned out to be something of a ‘gateway insect’ for me. Through learning about honeybees, I’ve also learned that 98% of insects on the planet are not considered agricultural pests, yet nearly all insects perish when hit by pesticides, and are significantly harmed as well though perhaps with a less obvious direct connection, when herbicides are used on the landscape (through the destruction of habitat, food sources, and critical microbial interactions). Twenty five percent of the known bee species around the world haven’t been seen since 1990. Wanting to learn more about the honey bee brought the plight of all insects into focus for me, and though I still grapple with the fact that every time I increase the size of our apiary, a native pollinator species faces more competition, so far the bees continue to keep themselves in our apiary, and I strive to teach everyone who expresses interest in the honeybee, about the wonders and importance of all insects species. Their activity supports us, and it just makes sense therefore, that I support them.

So What can you do?:

  • If you want to help ‘save the bees’ think about the 19,999 other species that need help as well, not just the common European Honey Bee, Apis Melifera
  • Support all of them by planting Native flower gardens–everywhere!
  • Leave the weeds along your fence row and in your lawn, then let them bloom
  • Create habitat for solitary bees by leaving the trunks of dead trees standing, and a few out-of-the-way bare patches of ground uncovered by mulch so tree and ground dwelling bees will have a place to raise their young and overwinter
  • Never use pesticides/herbicides
  • Make the time to have the awkward conversation with your neighbors when you see them hiring the mosquito spray truck, or squirting a dandelion with herbicide. Let them know that, no matter how much the company pushes the lie that their product doesn’t harm bees, it’s not true, and the most effective way to control mosquitos (or keep your kids from getting cancer) in any area is to have a community wide effort to eliminate standing water (and eliminate the use of anything ending in ‘-cide’…pesticide, herbicide, fungicide).
  • Minimize your carbon footprint. Climate change is wreaking havoc on nature–the very systems we, insects, all life on Earth rely on for survival are in peril. The difference is, not only did we cause climate change, we have the power to reverse it–unlike the whales, turtles, insects we share this glorious planet with–we can. Every time we start our car, use the clothes dryer, ride an elevator, get on an airplane, or even leave the tap running while we brush our teeth, we contribute to the unfolding climate crisis that is happening right now. While these decisions may seem better at the time, we have to ask the question, ‘better for who’? Just us, or the planet…Every single one of us can make a significant impact by reducing our energy consumption, and contributing to sustainable, renewable, energy programs.

We’re in for a rough ride, but at the time of this writing at least, experts agree it’s not too late to make a difference and minimize the most serious consequences of our wanton and unrestrained use of fossil fuels. What are you waiting for? Get that native plant pollinator garden started today!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/16/marks-spencer-honeybee-project-threat-biodiversity-conservationists-aoe

Books

From Soil to Stomach, and the contents therein…

While working at the farm, I’ve listened to a handful of books that link up well together and wanted to share here.

Hands down, the best book on growing under cover I’ve read, “The winter harvest” comes from the man who pioneered, small, intensive agriculture in America with great historical context of how growers around Paris in the 19th century created one of the most productive, intensive, urban agriculture systems in the world. Incredibly detailed with everything you need to have on your radar from techniques to philosophy. It’s a fantastic, concise, well written book.

“The Winter Harvest” –Coleman
https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/the-winter-harvest-handbook/

Natural Ecosystems have multiple feedback loops and in most cases, are self-supporting. Figuring out how to incorporate farming into a natural system, instead of against it, can result in productive agricultural systems where a great deal of the work is taken care of for us by the natural system. “Teaming with Microbes” reminds us that a vast portion of that ecosystem, with billions of organisms per teaspoon we can’t even see, are there to aid the gardener by closing the loop and finding balance between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ critters, from the microscopic to insects and by extension in my practical experience, all the way up to the interaction between voles and snakes/bobcats. If you don’t have enough voles, you won’t have predators around to control them for you. The same thing is true on the microscopic level. Everything has a place, and finding our place in nature is critical for a balanced, productive, sustainable, farm.

“Teaming with Microbes” –Lowenfels/Lewis
https://www.workman.com/products/teaming-with-microbes

The most salient image from “One Size Fits None” is that of dead cattle on the side of the road after a cattle truck highway accident which no wild animals would eat, as they came from feedlots… Just down the road, the grass fed animals who die on the range are reduced to bones by scavengers in under two weeks.

“One Size Fits None” –Anderson
https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496205056/

“The Hidden Half of Nature” takes us into the soil and into our guts and ties together/reveals many of the political wranglings that have contributed to the massively broken and unhealthy food system in the USA, as well as a fantastic review of the science and scientists who discovered microbes. This really got my science nerd side going.

“The Hidden Half of Nature” –Montgomery/Bikle
https://wwnorton.com/books/The-Hidden-Half-of-Nature/

Nicole Masters, with her fantastic New Zealand Accent, takes us on her own personal journey to health after pesticide poisoning as a child (which took a decade to diagnose) but primarily talks about soil, and the remarkable neglect of the life that it can sustain. She lays out, as plane as day, that biocides (any chemical intended to destroy life, I. E. pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) do just that–destroy life, perpetuating a dependent, downward spiral of costly chemical inputs that deplete the natural landscape and farmer’s bank accounts. Why exactly would we choose this path when we now have the science to prove, which she expertly explains in no-nonsence language, that farms and ranches are healthier and more productive when we work with nature instead of against it? A fantastic read (I listened to it twice!).

“For the Love of Soil” –Masters
https://www.integritysoils.co.nz/product/for-the-love-of-soil/

Though I read this next book at least a year ago now, it’s ease of reading (well listening as I used an audio book version while hoeing at the farm) and scientific referenced examples still sticks with me. A book to eliminate the ‘germophobe’ in you.

“I Contain Multitudes:The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” –Young
https://edyong.me/i-contain-multitudes

And finally, a non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, fact based book on nutrition that ties into the related themes mentioned in all three books above regarding the detrimental consequences of politics and greed on our food system and how we can make choices that combat that systems negative grip on our health. Dr Greger’s sometimes over-enthusiastic delivery of his own work in audio format leaves no doubt in my mind that we can radically improve our health through our own food choices (spoiler alert: eat plants–brightly colored and spicy ones–fresh, organic , whole, un-refined plants, lots of them!).

“How Not to Die” –Greger 
https://nutritionfacts.org/book/